Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

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Julie-Anne Randell as Ranevskaya (Lyubov) and Colin Ritchie as Yermolai Lopakhin (Alexander)

The Cherry Orchard

The Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth


It seems to their great credit that the Midland’s local amateur companies show such courage in programming plays from the Classical repertoire.

Amid more crowd-pleasing fare, perhaps Ayckbourn or Godber, Top Girls or Ladies in Lavender, you are just as likely to encounter Osborne and Wesker, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev, plus Schiller or even the Bard himself:

So credit to the Talisman for offering its take on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. I recently applauded the Loft’s Three Sisters. No difficulty in giving this a big thumbs up, too. Cast from strength, elegantly presented with a sensible modicum of set/props (John Ellam) -including a pertinent but mostly ignored rocking horse - this never bored nor sagged.

Perhaps that was part of the problem. The Cherry Orchard (their last Chekhov, their first-class website tells me, was Ann Brooks’ staging of Uncle Vanya in 2008) does need a good deal of ennui: the characters are underemployed or bored, although in very different ways (even the constantly busy Varya – ‘You still dress as a nun’ - and philosophising Trofimov).

Simon Stephens (of Dog in the Night-Time)’s much lauded translation does not all glow: it virtually dumbs down in language and, by cutting, some of the characters, interferes with the pace (we were through in two hours flat: the 1904 prototype was four) and loses track of the essentials, including the extras’ distrait allusions.

Mercifully he keeps the elderly retainer Firs more or less intact - a wondrous, bent-backed mutterer, complaining about the emancipation of serfs and about Gayev (‘He’s gone out without his coat again’). Neil Vallance, when time was, the title role in Silas Marner and Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, proves a very capable rival to the legendary Roy Dotrice. It’s from his ancientness that we really get a hint of Mother Russia (and paradoxically also from Kathy Buckingham-Underhill’s German Charlotta, verging on a Slavonic burr, but here shorn, sadly, of many of her essentially diverting tricks). Vallance excels at wry, beautifully paced retorts: ‘You’re very old,’ offers Alexander. ‘I’ve been alive a very long time, that’s why I’m old,’ is one gem; ‘I’ve been inhaling furniture polish for 25 years’ another, amongst many.

But why dump all the patronymics? If Leonid is not Leonid Andreyevich, Ranevskaya merely Lyubov, and Simeonov-Pishchik, plain Boris, we’re in danger. It all gets a bit Anglicised. Maybe with Colin Ritchie’s rich Scottish tones, that Lopakhin becomes merely Alexander, is less problematic – he is still ruddy, blustering, self-satisfied, an  Ibsenesque self-made man bent on axing historic trees and building holiday homes; and once ‘little Alexander, who they used to beat up, and who ran around with no shoes’.  

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Julie-Anne Randell (Lyubov) and Molly Ives (Anya) in final rehearsals

Maybe Dunyasha, Yasha, Simeon, Firs are all Russian-enough names; ditto Anya (Anichka) and Varya (never Varvara Mihailovna). But by pruning patronymics we’re starting to lose the crucial, uniquely Russian pre-Revolution feel. It’s all been cleaned up, softened, even anaesthetised.

There are some charming, winning performances. I had initial fears about Julie-Ann Randell, such a young Ranevskaya. Yet she makes a strong, joyous and sympathetic central character, always gorgeously attired (Wardrobe: Rosemary Gowers and Katie Siggs). Equally, her lackadaisical brother, Dave Crossfield’s Gayev, is unusually - young. I shouldn’t have worried. Randell’s Lyubov is a lovely, open, family-centred figure, nostalgic but vivacious and intelligent. Crossfield’s Leonid (‘Working won’t help you: you’ll still die’) was an original conception, full of Uncle Vanya-like moods and curious postures. He made a fine job as the new arrival in the Talisman’s Anne Frank, and shone even more here, catching exqusitely Gayev’s famous wordy apostrophes (to the bookcase, and finally, only to be cut off, to the house itself).

Another intruder, John Francis’s Vagabond, is seriously threatening, and provides a key moment in the unnerving bang that is heard outside and quickly explained away. Francis did yet better as the Station Master, whose awkward walk and benign personality make the party even jollier.

One felt for Graham Buckingham-Underhill’s obliging Simeonov-Pishchik (‘Boris’), forever deferential, scrupulously courteous, but hovering patiently rear stage with little to say (Chekhov’s fault, not the Director or Translator). But he comes into his own near the end, where a stroke of luck (‘white clay’) lets him pay off his umpteen debts. White bearded, looking (but not) authoritative, he constantly refers to ‘my daughter’. It’s less comic that his repeated real words – ‘my daughter Dashenka’.

The initial optimism, the resistance to change, the growing desperation and disillusion, and the reluctant resignation, are all uniquely and tangibly pre-Revolution Russia. Their universality stems, paradoxically, from their being place-specific.

After Lyubov’s mentions of the cherry orchard in full bloom being ‘a sea of white’, the back curtains reveal an exquisite sea – of pink (lovely, true, and mysterious and haunting). Pishchik’s upraised Ace of Hearts shows a black Ten. Tommy Cooper? Pyotr (Trofimov) has not the beard alluded to. Do these slips embarrass? Well, yes.  

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Kathy Buckingham-Underhill as the governess Charlotta, with fake baby, and (in background) Paige Phelps as the cheeky, petulant maid Dunyasha

Mike Santos made a suitably dopy, put-upon Yepihodov, a clean-the-stables, empty-the-rubbish type, bizarrely promoted by Lopakhin as the new dawn dawns. Henri West held us as the studious Trofimov, except I wished he’d take his hands out of the pockets of the green fatigue jacket he also (another protest) wears for the party/dance. Acting doesn’t work like that. Maybe he looked adequately Russki. Yet he looked equally like a student from Leeds. He speaks well, and Tom Courtenay in Dr. Zhivago was allowed an English accent too. But something more – like a dramatic idea – was missing.

As the conscientious forerunner of Russia’s (disastrous) future, he reflects well enough (‘People like you and me are above love’ or ‘Your grandfather, your great grandfather, they actually thought they could own people’). Likewise Martin Donaldson’s creeping-up-the-ladder Yasha, the opposite to Pyotr, a jumped-up serf, self and self-seeking. Yet here, we don’t see him here as the upstart he should be: he seems pretty much a pally family friend, not potential enemy.

Director John Dawson fared better with the younger girls. The Anya of Molly Ives, the Talisman’s enchanting Anne Frank recently, was all one need ask of a life-inexperienced 17 year old: sweet, playful, naïve, questing, lovable. Leigh Walker’s patient Varya deserved, perhaps, the top laurels, even though by nature restricted to the background. But even she needed more firmness, bossiness: and surely at least two or three of her ‘If only God would help us’ get cut in this compressed version.

Too much praise too early can be unhelpful, but I was massively impressed by Paige Phelps’ inventive Dunyasha. She seemed to know instinctively how to execute a move, pull a face, sneer, shamelessly flounce, dare, presume, take risks, aim (like Yasha) above her station. Her varied body language – when not overdone – is spiffing. She exemplifies how to start a gesture, to round one off; her character never rests, but cleverly creates, without stealing, when off-camera; in short, how to look like a pro. She’s a great find for the Talisman; maybe also for elsewhere.

Plenty of genuine credit – despite caveats - to John Dawson for creating a thoughtful, well-directed, ably moved production, of which the Talisman can surely be proud, complete with such a spirited, responsive ensemble. His characters are, indeed, ‘idiosyncratic’ as he suggests. Stanislavsky overplayed the tragic, to Chekhov’s chagrin and hurt. Here we never quite got full-blown tragedy or out-and-out. Aptly midway, it was perhaps a little too demure. Still, Anya’s ‘goodbye old house, goodbye old life’ summed things up perfectly. Perhaps she will marry Peter after all. To13-05-17. 

Roderic Dunnett


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